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“Ask Not for Whom the line is Drawn”: How Middle-Class, African-American Parents in an Urban California School District Socially Construct School Boundaries


Within the past few years, the topic of school boundaries (district boundaries and school attendance boundaries) has become more and more prevalent in both public and scholarly discourses around education inequality. While a number of education scholars have examined the role school boundaries play in education inequality, many of these scholars have focused primarily on geospatial and/or quantitative analyses of school districts or school district data. Guided by a theoretical framework that combines Critical Race Theory, social constructionism (meaning-making), and minority culture of mobility, this case study uses a qualitative approach to understand how middle-class, African American parents socially construct school boundaries. Hence, this study focuses on parents’ perceptions of school boundaries, how these perceptions shape their decision to cross school boundaries, and how their decision to cross school boundaries can either disrupt or reproduce school boundaries. I conducted 23 in-depth interviews with 24 parents and key informants from one socioeconomically diverse, predominantly African American community in an urban school district located in California. Major findings revealed that while most parent-participants believed that race and racial bias play a significant role in how school boundaries are drawn and enforced, they personally were not deterred by school boundaries. However, in their quest for what they perceived to be better schools, parents’ perceptions of and decisions to cross school boundaries contributed to the reproduction of school boundaries, leading to the further isolation of already marginalized students in disadvantaged schools. Findings also exposed both intra- and inter-racial divisions regarding school choice, suggesting that middle-class and/or upwardly mobile, African American parents use boundary-crossing as a tool to assert their class identity and distinguish themselves from less advantaged African American families. Policy implications are explored.

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